Washington State Ferries Grapples With Mask Requirements for Passengers

Even as Gov. Jay Inslee orders private merchants to require masks indoors, Washington state's own ferry crews lack the ability to conduct strict enforcement aboard ship.

Lopez Island resident Madrona Murphy complained to ferry officials after a weekend trip on the ferry Samish, when she saw at least 30 people without masks sitting in passenger-cabin booths. She suggested a ban on riders who don't mask up.

"I worry about the ferries becoming a hot spot, not necessarily for the visitors here, but for the residents," said Murphy, a botanist who travels between the San Juan Islands, one of the state's least-infected areas. "I really worry about the ferry workers. We depend on them."

Inslee's order, which took effect June 26, says businesses and organizations statewide must require anyone on their premises to wear face coverings "in almost all situations."

But ferry management's bulletin to front-line workers July 1 said, Washington State Ferries (WSF) "does not have the legal authority to enforce this order."

Each vessel was supplied 1,000 to 2,000 masks to give away onboard. Crews are told to not question people who aren't wearing a mask to avoid a potential violation of federal health privacy law. Someone may have medical reasons not to mask up.

"WSF should NOT deny travel to those customers who are not wearing face coverings," the bulletin says.

On July 24, Secretary of Health John Weisman extended the original governor's order to require that people wear masks when outside their home anywhere in the state, where they are within 6 feet of non-household members, even outdoors.

State proclamations say "violators may be subject to enforcement" pursuant to state codes. The listed misdemeanor penalty is $25 to $100, or up to 90 days in jail.

"But we cannot arrest them, and we cannot throw them off the boat," ferry spokesman Ian Sterling said. "You can't make them walk the plank."

Sterling said it would probably take verbal threats or a physical altercation by a passenger for a ferry crew to request law enforcement to meet the boat at the arrival dock. That hasn't occurred in mask dispute, to his knowledge. Conceivably, if a passenger defies the mask mandate "as a political statement" a crew might call police, who would choose whether to respond, he said.

Washington State Patrol troopers aren't citing people for mask violations at ferry terminals, or anywhere else, said Sgt. Darren Wright.

"Our stance is pretty much education and engagement," he said.

Ferry crews routinely announce on speakers that people must wear masks, and that drive-on passengers should stay in their vehicles if at all possible. Mask rules also appear on electronic signs, placards and sandwich boards at docks and on vessels.

On a recent Sunday round-trip between Bainbridge Island and Seattle, most drivers stayed in cars, and some used the ferry Wenatchee's car-deck restroom, while families masked and unmasked leaned out to watch Puget Sound, safely distanced.

"Businesses can kick you out or not sell you something [if you aren't wearing a mask], but the ferries have no such recourse," said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. "It's so hard to enforce this."

Peter Hart, regional director for the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific, which represents 900 ferry workers, said, "I don't want our folks having to be COVID cops, because that's not their bailiwick."

Well over 80% of passengers who leave their cars are masking, Hart estimates, based on field reports from the union's coronavirus work group.

"A lot of it is innocent, or just forgetting. They think ferry, they think outdoors, everything's safe," he said.

Rolfes said she sees nearly everyone masking on the Bainbridge-Seattle route, unless they're drinking coffee or spread out on the top deck.

Even in confined subway trains, studies abroad are finding few if any coronavirus outbreaks connected to public transit. Success in countries such as Japan hinges on mask cooperation and declining national infection rates.

"It doesn't have to be 100% compliance, we just have to get the reproduction rate way down, so it starts to shrink," said Jim Corenman, chair of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee. "As long as the people who aren't behaving properly aren't the superspreaders, we'll be OK."

King County Metro Transit, whose bus ridership is down two-thirds, is in a similar boat. Metro's mask requirement May 18 said: "The new directive requires voluntary compliance, and Metro operators will not prevent passengers without face coverings from boarding." Metro advises riders to avoid hassling maskless fellow passengers.

Bus drivers are accustomed to gray areas, because of fare-collection anxiety. Metro's operating rule book says to ask for money once, but don't argue, since that increases risks to transit workers and other passengers. Last month in France, a bus driver was beaten to death by passengers who refused his order to wear masks.

Businesses have a few tools that public transportation lacks. They can deliver products, or serve customers at the curbside or door, suggests the Association of Washington Business, which supports the mask mandates.

The union's Hart praised WSF's program, and said the culture of COVID prevention is gaining support. Esther Bryant Kyles, a Seattle-based ticket agent, died in March after contracting the coronavirus.

For now, workers feel stressed while the depleted ferry network operates "on the verge of failure every day," Hart said.

Though 56% of passengers have returned since the March lockdowns, WSF says it's short 100 employees because many are choosing to stay home to avoid exposure to the virus or take care of family members. Many routes provide only one boat; at noon Friday the Edmonds-Kingston waits reached three hours.

Ferry and union officials reached agreement to let many workers defer this summer's vacations to beef up the number of Coast Guard-qualified staff and keep boats sailing, Hart said.

Rolfes said nine deckhand trainees just graduated and 10 more will complete training in August, bolstering ferry staff. Ferry management also is contacting employees on leave to see how they be brought back to work safely, she said.

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